I have not seen the Vietnam veterans' memorial with my own eyes, and I distrust pictures. Vietnam taught me to distrust pictures -- it was a relentlessly linear, consecutive war, one strong sentence worth a thousand images -- so it follows that I should distrust my first reaction to Maya Lin's creation, but I don't at all. It seems to me perfect, that long black slab, so austere, abstract and dignified, an unforgettably somber sculpture carved with the names of those Americans who were killed or are missing, 57,939 names. Like most exact facts of the war, this one is wrong. I don't know how many Americans died, but it wasn't 57,939. And I know their definition of "missing" is narrow and therefore imprecise.
My other objection, and it is not frivolous, is that it is an error to have the names arranged chronologically by order of death. The names should be entered at random, because there should be no precedence, not even the benign precedence of chronology. Of course, this would work a hardship on anyone searching for the name of a friend or lover or relation because there were so many and here they are tightly packed, chiseled into the granite. Where would you start? I imagine you would want to start at the beginning, either end, and search until you found the name you knew. Perhaps you would have to walk the full 440 feet. There would be many of us on this walk. Don't we all know someone, or know of someone, who died in the war or is missing? Perhaps if you do not -- and you are over 40 -- you should wonder why you do not.
I suspect, judging from the photographs I have seen, that the low, heavy tablet, seeming to grow from the earth but not overwhelm or quarrel with it, gives to the dead and their comrades not dignity -- no man-made structure by whatever name confers dignity -- but memory. Only -- and not theirs, but ours. It gives to them the knowledge that we know, now. Whatever else the war was and is to those who served in it, it must not be forgotten by the rest of us; the war exists in their memories and ought now to exist in ours. Looking on this memorial, the survivors can have the satisfaction -- however small, however inadequate, however tardy, however inconsolable -- that the war is no longer anonymous, and the memory of the dead and living no longer an embarrassment, at least in this one location on the Mall in Washington, where the war began.
My memory is one thing I have learned to trust, and my memory is of one of the 57,939. I never knew him, never even spoke to him, and the facts that I have are scanty and second-hand. Name: Thurman Shockley. Unit: First Cavalry Division (Air Mobile). Age: 19. Religion: Methodist. Skin: Black.
This was January 1966, on Bong Son plain somewhere near the An Lao valley in Binh Dinh Province. I mention the location not because it will have any meaning to anyone who was not there but because a soldier might read this and almost certainly it will have resonance for him. Americans were in and out of the An Lao for years. It was at the end of the day, a routine day on reconnaissance. Not many enemy sighted, though there was some sniper fire. We had paused near a rice field while the company commander radioed battalion for instructions. I settled under a palm tree to make endless notes -- a reporter's woolgathering -- and then dropped flat at the sound of shots, five of them in very rapid succession. In a moment our own troopers began to return fire, the fire as aimless as my notes of a moment before. I raised my head then and saw a man down. He was down on his back. When I got to him there were two troopers standing next to him not knowing what to do because he was dead. A medic hustled over and listened to his heart, no sound. The trooper's eyes were wide open and without life, and amid all that drab -- the green of his fatigues, the black stock of his M16, the sweaty gray of his T-shirt -- a small red hole in his heart. This was what we looked at, the bright red of the blood beneath his dark face, which wore a look of the most open astonishment or insult, I could not know which. My journalist's eye -- this is the eye they pay you for and that, in turn, you pay for too, sometimes, in some coin -- registered that his cigarette was burning on the ground beside him, a Lucky Strike. Spec. 4 Shockley died before the cigarette did, and I find that now a cheap irony, though I didn't then. From details such as these, according to the canons of journalism, I knew, you could make something larger. This was Hemingway's inspiration -- "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene." That which was chaste was factual. Now I am not so sure, and if there is a meaning to this war it is that we must somehow apply the large, abstract words. In Vietnam, it was the ordinary facts that were obscene, and irony was easy, superficial and without consequence.
In those few moments almost 17 years ago now, now so motionless, still and dense in my memory, an American soldier died at random. I turned away from Thurman Schockley to see a platoon lumbering away over the rice field toward the green mountain, firing, firing. Of course the sniper was gone, long gone by then. They knew it. I talked to a few of Shockley's comrades. They didn't know him well, he'd joined the unit only a few days before. Someone said he came from somewhere in the Midwest, and someone else said he had been in the country six weeks, a draftee. I had no personal information of any kind, whether he was married or not, where he went to school, whether he played sports or read poets or both. Of course I knew nothing of the sniper, but I wasn't concerned with him. I thought of Thurman Schockley, 19, dead in Vietnam, so should you. He's there somewhere, year 1966. Look for him, say a prayer.
The writer, who was Washington Post correspondent in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, is the author of the novel, "In the City of Fear."